Just how good of a golfer was Rollie Heaton?
Well, he once caught the eye of the greatest champion golf has known – Jack Nicklaus.
Aaron Heaton, Rollie's grandson, tells the story of his grandfather competing in pro-ams with a golfing acquaintance from Kewanee who was a touring pro. After a round, the pro and Nicklaus were talking, when Rollie's name was brought up.
"The guy [from Kewanee] knew Jack, so he was over talking to him after the round," Aaron said. "Jack goes, 'Who was that guy who was with you?' The guy goes, 'That's Rollie Heaton, a local friend of mine.' Jack goes, "That's the greatest short game I've ever seen on a guy.' "
Heaton, who died Sunday 2 days shy of his 83rd birthday after battling cancer for a little more than a year, was one of most decorated golfers this area has seen. He won the Lincoln Highway, the top area amateur tournament, four times between 1959 and 1965 as a member at Morrison Country Club. He was the very first champion of the Rock River Classic, another area tourney, in 1965.
He won the club tournament at Prophet Hills Golf Course in Prophetstown 20 times, 13 more than his son, Leo, another fine amateur golfer.
"I didn't beat him because I was getting better," said Leo, the superintendant at Prophet Hills. "I beat him because he was getting older."
Rollie Heaton was a teacher in Lyndon and Prophetstown for more than 30 years, allowing him plenty of time to play golf in the summer. Leo remembers tagging along with his father to the course, but not necessarily to play together.
"We'd go to Morrison Country Club, he'd play with his buddies, and I'd go out and play all day," Leo said.
Leo found another way to be around his father when it came to golf.
"The most fun was when I was young and caddying for him," Leo said. "Every tournament we went to, everybody knew him, and he was always one of the favorites to win the tournament. That was more fun me."
Rollie Heaton's last Lincoln Highway title was in 1965 at Plum Hollow Golf Course in Dixon. Leo was 9-years-old at the time, and he dutifully pulled his father's clubs in a pull cart all 54 holes. Father and son were both quiet people by nature, and for a stretch of that tournament, it got a little too quiet.
"He was playing pretty good, and then he got into a bad streak," Leo said. "He lost his lead, so he said to me, 'Since I'm playing bad, you're not going to talk to me anymore?'"
They had plenty to talk about after the round, however, as Rollie rallied to win the event.
"He had a 20-foot, sidehill putt in the rain on the last hole to win the tournament," Leo said, "and he made it."
Pat Lessner of Dixon, another fixture in the Lincoln Highway, noted Rollie Heaton was his benchmark as far as goal-setting for the event.
"If you beat him, you were probably going to finish in the top five," Lessner said. "That was my ultimate goal, and I was finally able to do that at Morrison back in 1975. I tried to get up to his level of play, and if I could do that, I knew I was making progress."
The two men became friends over the years, bonding over golf and a career spent teaching high school business classes, Lessner in Dixon and Heaton in Prophetstown.
"We became friends," Lessner said, "and he was just such an easy guy to talk to. He was a wonderful man."
Heaton golf file
• Won Lincoln Highway tournament in 1959, 1962, 1963 and 1965
• Won first-ever Rock River Classic in 1965
• Won club tourney at Prophet Hills 20 times